What's new in New Orleans? Food's future, history represented in restaurant, museum openings

What's new in New Orleans? Food's future, history represented in restaurant, museum openings

March 22nd, 2017 by Anne Braly in Life Entertainment

Liz Williams looks over one of the most prized volumes in the John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library, a book by television food pioneer Lena Richards. The library is located in the new food corridor along Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in New Orleans.

Photo by Anne Braly /Times Free Press.

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NEW ORLEANS, La. — When hunger hits in the Big Easy, you don't have to look far to find a place to appease your appetite.

Most visitors to this coastal city head to one of four areas: the French Quarter, the place to dine on cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde or fish amandine at Meauxbar; the Central Business District, home to such favorites as chef John Besh's new restaurant, Lüke; the Garden District, which houses the famous Commander's Palace; and the Freret Street corridor, the hot spot of Uptown New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

If you go

* Toups South, 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday (closed Tuesday).

* Roux Carre, 2000 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

* Cafe Reconcile, 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

* John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library, 1611 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

* Southern Food & Beverage Museum, 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Hours: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Sunday (closed Tuesday).

Elsewhere along the boulevard

* Primitivo, 1800 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., boasts chefs Adolfo Garcia and Nick Martin, who put flame to fork with roasted and smoked meats. The campfire has come of age; just follow your nose. Hours: 3-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

* Casa Borrega, 1719 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., is a fiesta of Mexican favorites that mirror south-of-the-border street fare. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Now, the city has a new dining destination: Central City's Oretha Castle Haley neighborhood. Acclaimed by locals, the neighborhood remains largely undiscovered by tourists and, until recently, was a place "you wouldn't venture after dark," admits chef Joe Smith, a New Orleans native.

Encompassing an area originally known as Dryades Street, the neighborhood has a checkered history. When segregation was still part of everyday life in New Orleans, the neighborhood flourished with African-American businesses. More recently, Dryades Street had become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.

"There was not one single business that opened for blocks around for a long, long time," Smith says.

But that's all changed. Community leaders and others have seen a renaissance slowly take shape. The new direction included renaming the street to honor leading civil-rights activist and New Orleans native Oretha Castle Haley.

Part of the cultural rebirth can be traced to the opening of Cafe Reconcile by Jesuit priests wanting to give neighborhood youth a sense of direction and purpose.

Within a year, the youth center morphed into a place where at-risk teens could learn about the restaurant business. They found plenty of support within New Orleans' strong food culture, with many talented chefs willing to support the venture, including TV personalities Emeril Lagasse and John Besh.

Cafe Reconcile continues to offer kids a chance to make it in the industry through a six-week training program that prepares them for work in area restaurants. The youth receive classroom training, then move on to work in the cafe kitchen and the cafe itself, a lunch place for regional Southern fare, such as po' boys, gumbo and catfish with crawfish sauce.

Smith is a graduate of the Cafe Reconcile program and now one of its chefs.

"Cafe Reconcile is my heart," he says. "It's my passion. It's my mission."

Across the street, business is brewing at Roux Carre, a restaurant incubator that opened in 2014. It's a nonprofit venue committed to providing a place where women and minority restaurateurs can get a start on their way to owning a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Roux Carre, an outdoor food court in Central City, could be considered multiple restaurants in one. Diners can take their pick of Cajun, Latin American, Jamaican and Cuban food.

Among the many options are plantain balls from Black Swan, Cuban sandwiches from The Papusa Lady, gumbo and grilled shrimp po' boys from Estralita's, jerk chicken and goat curry from Johnny's Jamaican Grill and Cajun surf-and-turf (alligator sausage and crawfish etouffee) from Diva Dawg.

High-profile chefs, such as four-time James Beard Award nominee and "Top Chef" favorite Isaac Toups, are on the ground floor of food service in the new food corridor. Toups and his wife, Amanda, opened Toups South in late 2016. Like the man himself, the food from this Central City kitchen is big and bold — not surprising for a chef who is fearless in his approach to reinventing Southern cooking.

Investing his talent and money in the neighborhood, bringing business back to the once-neglected area, made sense on a financial, as well as community, level, Toups says.

"I predict a tremendous amount of growth in coming years. It's an up-and coming neighborhood. We like to open in places where we feel we are needed," he adds, referring to opening his first restaurant, Meatery, in 2012 in Mid-City, an area of New Orleans, that, like many, experienced a wave of gentrification following Hurricane Katrina.

At Toups South, smoked lamb leg is served with corn chow-chow; the pork belly is glazed in brown sugar and seasoned with lime-spiced watermelon and sesame. And Toups can turn an ordinary piece of fish into a dish that will make you stand up and applaud. A meal at Toups South is an adventurous production of flavors that will make any visit to New Orleans a tasty memory.

Cataloging history

Central City is more than just good restaurants; it's a place to discover food history.

Non-foodies may not realize the sheer pleasure a cook gets when spending an afternoon in the company of a good cookbook. If you're among this genre of folks, the John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library will keep you enthralled for hours.

This culinary branch of the New Orleans Public Library is the largest such library in the United States not connected with a culinary school or food corporation. This niche collection contains an astounding 17,000 cookbooks, ranging from those wonderful community cookbooks with plastic bindings to best-sellers from professional chefs and food writers.

Chef Paul Prudhomme willed his entire collection to the library, and here you'll find papers from Southern food pioneer Louis Osteen. Considered the most important books, though, according to librarian Liz Williams, are those from Lena Richards. Hers may not be a household name, but this pioneering African-American was one of the first chefs to appear on television in the 1950s.

Across the street, Williams realized another dream by opening the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Her idea was to have a museum that also offered food and drink, and a marriage with Toups South made this possible. The restaurant and museum are located side-by-side in a massively large former street market, separated only by a thin floor-to-ceiling curtain.

The museum, with artifacts dating to the 1750s, celebrates the food history of every state. Jack Daniel stands large in the Tennessee exhibit, while a replica barbecue shack salutes Alabama's barbecue king, Big Bob Gibson. The museum also houses the largest collection of absinthe artifacts in the United States. Visitors can grab a cocktail at the bar in Toups South and browse — this is one museum that encourages food and drink.

As for the area's future, Poppy Tooker, New Orleans native and host of the award-winning NPR show "Louisiana Eats," believes the street is poised for more growth.

"I think the neighborhood is going to continue to rapidly gentrify and expect Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard to become the new Freret Street corridor," she says.

Adds Toups, "I think everyone is extremely pleased to see this neighborhood get the love and attention it deserves."

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.